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Face to Face With Rick Perry

As the governor approaches the end of his historic administration, he opens up about the highs and lows of his time in office, what he’ll miss about the job, and where he goes from here.

By July 2014Comments

Photograph by Peter Yang

Five thousand one hundred and forty-four days—that will be the length of Governor Perry’s administration when he steps down on January 20, 2015, in accordance with article 4, section 4, of the Texas constitution. That longevity is unprecedented in Texas politics. To put it in perspective, consider that Perry will have served as governor nearly two years longer than Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. During Perry’s time in office, Texas added six million residents; George W. Bush went to Washington, D.C., and returned to Dallas as a private citizen; and the state became solidly Republican. Along the way, Perry defeated all comers for his office, including a wealthy Hispanic businessman in 2002 (Tony Sanchez), a slew of misfit candidates in 2006 (Chris Bell, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and Kinky Friedman), and a formidable U.S. senator and a popular big-city mayor in 2010 (Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill White, respectively). No single politician has left such a mark on the state—or generated such strong feelings on both sides of the political spectrum. What is certain is that every governor going forward will be measured in some way against the legacy of Rick Perry.

BRIAN D. SWEANY: Governor Perry, I’d like to start at the beginning of your administration. Take me back to December 2000, when you became governor. It was an unbelievably momentous time in Texas politics: George W. Bush had become president as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, and as lieutenant governor, you ascended to the top job. What were your expectations of being governor then?

RICK PERRY: Actually, you cannot start there, because the preparatory period is substantially prior to that. I came to Austin in January 1985 as a 34-year-old legislator, and that began the gradual education of Rick Perry. Sixty-six percent of my time in the House I spent on the Appropriations Committee, and I think there is not a better school to learn how government works. You can really find out about all these different agencies of government, how they function, and who the people are, and that was a priceless education for me. I not only made friends that would pay dividends in the future, I went on to head the Texas Department of Agriculture. So I went from the oversight of agencies into the management of an agency. And then, as the lieutenant governor, albeit for only two years, I worked on consequential issues, and it was excellent schooling on how the Senate functioned. 

All of that was part of my preparation for becoming the governor: to understand how this place works and to be curious about it. I think if there’s one thing that I am, I’m curious about how these things work. I was well schooled, well prepared, well experienced to serve as the governor of Texas.

More than anyone else currently in state government, you represent the change in Texas politics from a conservative Democratic state to a conservative Republican state. You started off as a Democratic legislator who made his reputation as a member of the “Pit Bulls” [a group of House members on the Appropriations Committee who scoured the budget] before switching parties and running for statewide office, in 1990. Over the years, did your view of politics and the major issues facing the state change?

I think, by and large, that my upbringing by two relatively fiscally conservative and socially conservative parents—and a community that honed that philosophy—was not out of line with what I believe today.

As you’re reflecting on your tenure, does the Governor Perry of 2014 have advice for the Governor Perry of 2000?

Well, I think hindsight is generally clearer than the haze and fog of  battle. I might have done some things differently, but I don’t think I am a different individual. Whether you’re a truck driver or an airline pilot or a surgeon or a magazine editor, experience obviously helps. There’s a really interesting book called The Talent Code, and the CliffsNotes version is, the reason people become world-class at something is because they do it over and over and over. Playing the piano, ten thousand times. Shooting baskets, ten thousand times. Doing equations, ten thousand times. The same thing can be said of being governor: having done it for approaching fourteen years, I became more adept at dealing with the issues. But if you ask me if I am different, I don’t think I’m different philosophically.

I’ve learned that there are ways to get things done and there are ways that are not as effective. For instance, the HPV issue—I still believe that helping young women receive a vaccine that can keep them from having a cancer that will lead to a horrendous death is a thoughtful, humane thing to do. I would have had a longer conversation with the people of the state about it and would probably have gone about implementing it in a different way. That one comes to mind.

Let’s dial in on that, if you don’t mind. It seems to me that there are two things that happened there—one was that a former chief of staff of yours was a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company that stood to benefit from the decision. I think that created serious questions in people’s minds. Two, from a political standpoint, why issue an executive order instead of supporting a bill that would have made its way through the Legislature? Was that a mistake?

I don’t know if I’d put it as a mistake. I think it was an experience thing, and there was a better way to explain it to people. I understand why people like to glom on to the fact that here’s an associate who is now working for a company, but when you have been around government for, at that point, twenty years, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find somebody who does not know somebody or have a relationship with someone who represents a company in this state. The idea that we’re making decisions based on that is pretty far-fetched, and I can go back and show you places where I was on the other side from people that I know and we passed legislation that they tried to stop. But I know that’s easy pickings, so to speak.

The more substantive issue for me was that we did not have a conversation with the people of the state. If they understood and had looked into the face of Heather Burcham [Perry reaches to a table beside his desk and shows me a picture of the Houston teacher, who died from cervical cancer in 2007, at the age of 31], they might have had a different understanding about it. I was sitting on her bed just a day or two before she died, and I remembered her sitting here in my office, a vibrant young lady who knew she was dying. That had a really big impact on me. And everybody who has a picture on that table is no longer with us. Those are people who, sitting behind this desk, I have the ability to impact their lives, or the lives of people like them. Not to do so is a failure in my opinion. 

So that’s what drives me, that is what makes me get up and do the things that I do. There are a number of pieces of legislation that I was able to influence because I was the governor, but I wish I had been more effective. I wish I had been thoughtful enough to understand that the decision to have school-age girls have the HPV vaccine was not going to go well—not because it would have been a political victory for me but because it would have saved some lives. 

Tell me, then, what are some of the successes you will look back on and say, “This is my legacy”? What accomplishments will you be remembered for when seventh graders read about you in thirty or forty years?

I’ll let some other people do that for me, if I may. Richard Fisher [the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas]—we don’t share the same political party, by the way—said the most important piece of legislation that passed during the decade of the 2000’s was tort reform. 

From the ’03 session? Your critics saw this as a political move to pander to your base. Clearly you disagree with that. 

We are now approaching 34,000 more licensed physicians in the state of Texas than in 2003. I always like to ask, What’s the result of what happened? Most people don’t stick around as governor long enough to see their results. Well, the result here is that a pregnant woman living along the Rio Grande who used to have to drive outside of her home county to receive care doesn’t have to do that anymore. Or a mom whose child fell off a bicycle and sustained a closed head injury doesn’t have to drive all the way to San Antonio to find a neurologist; she can find one in South Texas. Those are the resultsaccess to health care, which is what we talked about all along. Again, the critics and the PR that go along with it—I’ve been around long enough to understand that that’s just part of the game you play, and it is what it is. But the fact is that we have more access to health care professionals. And access to health care has always been the big issue for me. Not forcing people to buy insurance but giving them access.

When we talk about the whole health care debate, access to health care in too many people’s minds equals insurance. Well, there’s a reason that Medicaid wasn’t expanded in Texas. It is a broken system. If the feds would work with us to allow the state to come up with the solutions—I just happen to think that we have our arms around how to deliver health care in our state better than a one-size-fits-all attempt out of  Washington, D.C. And tort reform is a great example of it. I’m not for a national tort reform, because my bet is it would probably weaken what we’ve done in Texas. It was the same reason that we didn’t want to participate with [the federal education program] Race to the Top, because it would weaken what we’d done in Texas. I would suggest to you that that was one of the most influential things that we did during the 2000’s.

You vetoed a Medicaid bill in 2001, during your first session, and then we’ve had this latest round of debate. Explain that to our readers who may say, “Well, you say that access to health care is your number one priority, yet we had deep cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program in the early 2000’s.” How do you square those two things, when Texas still has the highest percentage of uninsured and the highest percentage of poor uninsured in the country, and we have one of the highest percentages of uninsured children? What is the Texas solution if we’re not interested in the federal solution?

I go back to “access to health care does not mean access to insurance,” and I think there is a very clear education process that needs to go on, because those who would like to see a single-payer, Washington-style, one-size-fits-all program implemented across the country, they don’t want to talk about anything other than insurance. What I have to look at, as the chief executive officer of this state, is the cost. Medicaid is broken. Even the president of the United States, in 2009, said Medicaid is broken. So why would we want to expand a program that’s already using up well over 25 percent of our state’s budget, just so we could say we have more people insured? I’m more interested in access—truly having access to health care.

Would we do things differently than what we’ve seen come out of Washington? Substantially. We would have more personal responsibility. We would probably have health savings accounts. I would refer you to another red-state governor that’s laid out a very broad health care reform, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. But until Washington trusts the state legislatures and the governors to implement these programs, it’s going to be difficult for us to improve. And I just don’t think that Connecticut or Montana or Texas should have to have the same rigid restrictions to deliver a health care program. I think each of those states is pretty diverse, in terms of population, culture, and ethnic makeup, and the idea that one set of rules is going to work across the country, just on its face, is, I think, very clearly flawed. If Washington were to give us those flexibilities, I think that states would be able to have more people covered, and they’d be able to deliver better, more efficient, more effective health care solutions.

We have seen some red states work with the federal government. Arkansas, for example, has implemented a trigger so that if federal funding decreases, the state can opt back out entirely.

Arkansas isn’t actually a red state yet—will be soon.

Fair enough, but my point is that states are doing things their own way. Is there not room for Texas to do the same?

Here’s the dilemma. Again, I totally respect those governors’ decisions. Republican governors that have said, “You know what, we want to participate,” I don’t want to second-guess them. I respect their Tenth Amendment right to make those decisions for their citizens. But we have had waivers in to the federal government—for the current administration and in the previous administration—and we didn’t get them. So my point is, do you really believe that state legislators and governors can act in the best interests of their citizens or not? This president does not think we can, because he was asked directly in a meeting with forty or so governors, about half of whom were Democrats and half of whom were Republicans. Governor Jindal specifically asked the president about flexibility, and he basically said, “I don’t trust governors to make the right decisions about implementing Medicaid programs.”

The president believes that Washington should make these decisions on education, on health care, on transportation infrastructure—the list goes on—and that the states need to follow their instructions from Washington. I just don’t believe that’s efficient or thoughtful, and it’s not what’s best for the citizens of our state. I think we could implement a program that is more effective and more cost-efficient if we were allowed the flexibility.

Earlier you said that waivers were denied under the previous administration. Of course, that was the Bush administration. Are you saying that for you it’s not so much an issue between Ds and Rs, but that it’s a—?

You are exactly right—it’s a bureaucratic issue. Tommy Thompson and Michael Leavitt were the two secretaries of Health and Human Services that we dealt with during the Bush administration. And they both had been governors. These are guys who get it, but finally, with about eight months to go in the administration, Michael told me, “It doesn’t look like the waiver’s going to get there.” I think it shows you the difficulty of changing the bureaucratic mind-set in Washington, D.C. I’ll give you one aside: in 1978 I went to Washington to lobby for a farm bill during the Carter administration, and I went back two years later to lobby for the farm bill under the Reagan administration. And the same guy was in the office. So I asked him, “Why are you still here?” And he said, “Because I’m a bureaucrat. I’ll be here when the next president comes in and the next one after that.” 

The legacy of President Reagan continues to have a strong hold on the Republican party, particularly at a time when the party is wrestling with its identity. What do you think it will mean in future elections if candidates campaign as a Perry Republican? What would you hope it would mean?

It would mean that you believed, by and large, in the Tenth Amendment, that states should be laboratories of innovation. If there’s one word that I think describes me as a governor, it’s “competition.” I can put it on a bumper sticker: “I Believe in Competition.” I believe in competition electorally, I believe in competition between the states, I believe in competition athletically. That should give you a really good view into how I look at things. If you’re trying to recruit a business to your state, then you’re going to compete with other states. Inside of Texas, you’re going to have to compete to bring companies to Brownsville or Van Horn or Midland. Now, I mention those three cities because they’re all three involved in the space industry. Blue Origin is in Van Horn, XCOR’s in Midland, and hopefully Brownsville will soon announce that SpaceX is going to build its launch site there. 

Because we are fiscally conservative, we’re going to be competitive on tax structure, on regulatory climate, on the legal system, and on education policies, because education policies basically tell people whether or not you’re going to have a skilled workforce. Those are the four pillars that we based our thought process on over the last fourteen years. Governing’s really pretty easy: you have to have a tax policy that doesn’t overburden the job creators, a regulatory climate that’s fair and predictable, a legal system that doesn’t allow for over-suing, and public schools that are held accountable for developing a skilled workforce. That’s the blueprint. The hard part is finding men and women who will stand up to special interests and implement those programs. I think I’ve been incredibly blessed with speakers and lieutenant governors who worked really closely to start us on a trajectory, particularly in 2003. And House members and senators, at least a majority of them, helped us get these things put in place.

That’s interesting—the magazine has often reported that there was a frosty relationship between you and former speaker Tom Craddick and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.

Frosty? Craddick and I were particularly close. David and I became close, though I didn’t know him well enough at the start. We worked to become both professional and personal friends. I mean, we argued, we philosophically got in here and knocked heads, but we knew we had to get things done. It’s one of the great things about the way Texas operates and, frankly, about the way most states operate. You don’t have the ability to just get over there and stick your lance in the ground and say, “This is what it’s going to be,” and then walk away. And we might do that for a little while, but we knew at the end of the day that time was running out and that the session was going to be over—we’d rather have half a loaf than no loaf. 

Yet one of the things that people talked a lot about, despite your long preparation, as you said at the beginning of our conversation, was what happened at the end of the 2001 session, when you vetoed a record 82 bills. 

You didn’t ask me about Speaker [Pete] Laney. I had a frosty relationship with Speaker Laney.

But that’s not what the vetoes were about.

I think you’ll recall that Bill Ratliff was the lieutenant governor during that session, so there were two individuals who were not aligned with me philosophically. And again, it goes back to this whole experience model that we talked about, and experience is a two-way street. They didn’t know how I was going to govern. Even though I had served as lieutenant governor while Ratliff was a senator, he was probably a little more inclined to be aligned with Laney than with me. Laney was a liberal, yellow-dog Democrat and passed things that were not in the mainstream of Republican thought, and so there were the vetoes.

So the two-way street was, that guy will veto the legislation if he doesn’t agree with it. Now, with experience, you learn to work with members more closely during a session. I grew as a governor, I learned as a governor, and we haven’t even come close to 82 vetoes in a single session.

Is there a Texas governor that you admire or look to for how to do your job? Or, conversely, is there a Texas governor that makes you think to yourself, “That is not the way I want to govern”?

There are a number of those who fit into the latter category. But there is not a governor that I look back on and say that I learned from legislatively. However, I admire two former governors in particular. First, Sam Houston, for the obvious reasons. This was a man who was an incredible leader.

A man who gave up the office of governor instead of secede from the United States. 

That’s right. I was always intrigued about how he became so disciplined and principled, and I finally read the story from the Sam Houston State University archives. When he left as a teenager to go fight in the Indian wars with Andrew Jackson, his mother gave him two things. She gave him a ring that looks almost identical to this one that I have on [Perry holds up his ring finger]. It was just a plain gold band, but she inscribed in it the word “honor.” She also gave him a musket. She said, “I would rather the grave be filled with all of my sons than one of you run away to save your own life. My cottage door will be opened eternally to a man of courage, but it will be closed forever for a coward.” That’s pretty strong. That made me understand where this guy’s principles came from. He was taught as a young man to be a very disciplined, principled person. The other governor I admire is Dolph Briscoe. He did two things that most modern-day Texans do not realize have had such a powerful influence upon our state. First, he was very involved with implementing the farm-to-market-road system. That has driven the Texas economy in a huge way. It provided the ability to move your products from rural areas to the market, but it also had a huge impact on the upward cost of real estate in rural Texas, particularly on the wildlife side and the livestock side. The reason that happened was because of his screwworm eradication program in the sixties. Today, most people couldn’t tell you what a screwworm is, but that program eliminated the flesh-eating larvae that killed a huge percentage of deer and livestock. Those two programs had a huge impact on this state economically. Dolph Briscoe was an incredibly visionary guy. I think he was one of the most influential governors we’ve ever had.   

One of the things you said in 2000 was that you hoped public universities would become as aggressive in hiring Nobel laureates as they are in recruiting football coaches like Mack Brown. When you look back on your tenure, did we make it? 

We made a lot of progress, and this is one of those issues where I have been a very serious taskmaster. At the end of the day, is higher education where I would like it to be? No, but there’s not any place in government that has reached perfection. We tried to shoot for it. But higher education in Texas is still a good value. We’re below the national average on the cost of tuition. Four years ago people were like, “Whew, what’s he thinking with that ten-thousand-dollar degree?” That program [which capped tuition and fees at certain satellite campuses] is now accepted and is available for young people who want to go that route. We had a 934 percent increase in financial aid during my time as governor. Those are monumental steps. Now, that’s good data, but it’s cold data. What I measured this by is a young Hispanic man who couldn’t have afforded to go to college had it not been for this financial aid but today is out of the University of  Texas, has a great job, has a family, and has an unlimited future. That’s how I measure real success. And it’s happening all the time in Texas.

Are you comfortable with the changes that we’ve seen as a result of tuition deregulation?

I would probably tweak [the bill]. I would say, “Here is your flexibility in tuition, but here are the benchmarks you have to hit before you can increase your rates.” We didn’t do the latter part of that. We basically gave the universities carte blanche. Looking back on it, we probably gave them a bit too much flexibility.

Has your view of the death penalty changed in the time that you have been in office? We are now sending fewer people to death row at the same time that we have seen DNA evidence become far more important in trials and for exonerations.

No. I am probably more supportive of the process because I became intimately engaged in it. I saw the appeals process and the length of time and expense that go into it. I am more convinced than ever that Texas has a process in place that is appropriate, that does deliver justice in the most heinous acts that occur to our citizens.

You have no doubt that Texas has never executed an innocent man?

No, no doubt at all. Or certainly not since I’ve been governor. I go to bed every night with concerns on my mind, but the death penalty is not one of them.

Generally speaking, Republicans don’t get praise for criminal justice issues. But my administration has been an exception. Look at our drug courts, for example. I’m a big believer that you either have a good idea or you don’t. They’re not Republican ideas, they’re not Democrat ideas. In the early 2000’s, John Creuzot, a Democratic judge from Dallas County, came to me and said, “We’re sending all these kids who are first-time, nonviolent drug offenders to jail. Here’s a better way.” He laid out his drug-court concept. And I was like, “You know what? That makes sense.” 

After we put those courts in place, we created a number of different specialty courts for these first-time, nonviolent offenders. Our crime rate in Texas is the lowest it’s been since 1968. We shut down three prisons. While other places are building prisons, we shut down three. You don’t hear [U.S. attorney general] Eric Holder saying many nice things about Texas. He pointed us out on this program and said, “That is good public policy. That’s smart on crime, and it’s saving taxpayers money.” This is a Democrat idea. My party doesn’t have a lock on all the good ideas, and I admit it. We need to look around and choose which of these ideas are good and then go put them into place. I couldn’t care less who gets the credit. 

How do you think the party has changed under your leadership versus Governor Bush’s leadership? What does it mean to be a Perry Republican and a Bush Republican?

I think it’s almost impossible to draw a lot of conclusions about one style versus another style and, even more importantly, about one’s results. And the reason is this: it would be like trying to say, “Will people be more inclined to call it the Clements Republican party or the Bush Republican party?” Well, there was a lot of difference between those, and now we’re fourteen years away from George Bush having been the governor of Texas. You back up fourteen years from when George W.  started, that was 1980. That’s light-years in political terms. 

George Bush was a very capable political person. He landed in this office and looked around and said, “I need to be able to work with those two guys [Democratic speaker Pete Laney and Democratic lieutenant governor Bob Bullock].” And he and Bullock worked really closely together. Now, at that particular point in time—this is my observation—Laney looked around and said, “I need to work with those guys.” Had Bullock and Laney gotten together when Bush rolled in here and said . . . [motions with his hands as if he’s sticking in a knife]? The point is, Bullock and Bush really liked each other, and I think Laney decided, “Okay, I’ll be on that program.” But George Bush knew not to push. He knew where he could push and where he couldn’t push.

The bulk of my governorship has been a completely different landscape. I’d been around the Capitol for a long time and made lots of personal relationships, individuals who went on from the House to be senators or hold other positions. I could call them up and say, “You remember . . . ?” Ric Williamson is a great example. Ric was a good member of the House, but he was banished by the Laney machine because he was on the other side of the speaker’s race. But he ended up being TxDOT chairman, and I called him up on a fairly regular basis and said, “Hey, man, what do you think about this?” Another example is Democratic state senator Kirk Watson. We don’t agree on a lot of social issues, but on economic development he’s been a stalwart. He gets it: if you don’t have the economic progress, your city is going to deteriorate, you’re not going to have the tax revenues to be able to do the things that you want, whether it’s light-rail or some other project. Those relationships are really valuable. My point is, it’s really hard to draw conclusions about whether Bush would have done this or Clem-ents would have done that. We’re going to get graded on our time in the arena, and had I been governor from 1995 to 2000, I might have had a different outcome. I was governor from December 2000 through January 2015. That period of time is going to stand on its own. I’ll leave it to somebody else to analyze how things were different from Clements or different from Bush. I’d say that we are three completely different people.

We are in the middle of an election cycle in which the Republicans are having a debate about which candidates are the true conservatives, so the field has been pushed as far to the right as it has ever been. Is that healthy for your party?

I think it balances itself out. It’s the reason we have primaries; it’s the reason we have general elections. I’m not particularly concerned by those conversations, though there’s always stuff that occurs on the fringes. I’m thinking that the impeachment of President Obama might be a little out there on the fringe, but that’s a Democrat [former U.S. Senate hopeful Kesha Rogers] who is making that case. If you move too far in one direction, the electorate will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Come back over to the middle, buddy.” 

The consulate general of Japan was just in my office, and he asked me if I thought Texas would change from red to blue. I told him, “I don’t think so, not short-term and, frankly, not long-term.” He had heard the same argument about the growth of the Hispanic population, but Hispanics are not monolithic voters. Historically they have voted Democratic, but they’re going to wisely decide which of the candidates best represent their interests. I think that has as much potential for change as anything out there, and I think there are a lot of independent Hispanic voters who are going to sit back and say, “Okay, who’s gonna let me keep more of my money? Who’s gonna stay out of my business? Who’s gonna protect life?” It’s the same things Republicans talk about. All of those candidates who are seeing who can be the most conservative? A lot of them may sound like voters in Hidalgo County.

It must be strange for your name not to appear on the ballot this year. What will life be like for you in January, when you leave office?

Bittersweet. I love this job. It has been one of the most extraordinary, if not the most extraordinary, things I’ve done in my life. And I say that because it’s been every bit as much of an adventure with my wife, Anita. She has been very engaged, though a lot of times you didn’t see her imprint. She has been particularly focused on health care and sexual abuse. In fact, I’m headed to Houston this week to do an event about sex trafficking. Anita has been very interested in that issue and has worked for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. 

This has been a fabulously interesting job, and I got to stick around long enough to see the results of things that we passed, like the educational policies that allowed 118 percent more of the Hispanic population to be engaged in higher education. A 228 percent increase in their graduation rates. From time to time, a kid will come up and say, “Hey, thank you, you’ve changed my life.” That is an amazing moment. Leaving that behind is tough, but I know it’s the right time. And I’m not going to dwell on it. If there were a whole lot of things that still needed to be done, I would probably run again, but I think we’re leaving things in awfully good shape for the next governor.

You feel like you accomplished what you set out to accomplish?

I do. If I didn’t, I would have stayed and run again.

When January 2015 rolls around, the next job most people expect you to have is as a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

It’s a possibility. The next job I have will be in the private sector somewhere. I have no idea what that’s going to be, but it will come before I make a decision about my political future.

But you’re looking at that seriously?

I’m looking at both seriously.

In terms of your ability to connect with a national audience, what will be different in 2016 than in 2012?

One of the things that I discovered in 2011 and 2012 was that it’s very hard to do both jobs and to do both jobs well. I’m a very focused person; I’m very curious about what’s going on in state government. You can’t be governor and run for the presidency of the United States and do both jobs justice. So not having the rigors of running a state will be substantially invigorating as a candidate. You can’t parachute into the race in August of the year before the election. And even if  I don’t run, the preparation—whether it’s learning more about international economic issues, about domestic economic issues, about foreign policy—that’s a good process for me as I go on to that next stage in my life, whatever that may be.

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